Meryl Streep’s performance as legendary British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is the entire point of The Iron Lady. The film is muddled history, hackneyed drama and a generally underwhelming entertainment—except that Streep brings the British icon to life with uncanny imagination, thus inspiring unexpected interest.
Muddled history: The dramatic arc of The Iron Lady is Thatcher’s rise and fall as a politician. There is just enough historical context to be misleading, and to lend a “this was all inevitable” air to Thatcher’s dismantling of entire industries and the British labor movement. (Let us pass over the film’s treatment of the Irish question.) Her fall is kind of insulting, too, suggesting that it was her manners, not her policies, that led colleagues to reject her.
Hackneyed drama: The events of Thatcher’s life are, in their entirety, framed by Alzheimer’s-induced hallucinations and flashbacks. The filmmakers practically dare the audience to dislike this poor sick grandma. It also lets the filmmakers skate, yet again, on taking a point of view of Thatcher that’s more than monument polishing.
The hallucinations allow Thatcher’s dead husband to haunt her. She alternately enjoys and is tormented by this. This device that works, because Streep has a lovely rapport with Jim Broadbent as hubby Denis, and their moments together are compelling.
The rest of the cast of characters—and these are historical personages of some interest—are barely name-checked. Some of the actors playing these bits do make an impression, however brief; Richard E. Grant is especially fun as Thatcher’s ally turned rival Michael Heseltine. (The poor fellow impersonating U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig doesn’t look, act or sound anything like that memorable pompous ass.) This works out well for two supporting players, however: Since the film is interested only in the lead characters, Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd make more of an impression as the young Maggie and Denis.
This second effort isn’t as poorly directed as Phyllida Lloyd’s debut film, Mamma Mia, because there’s a much tighter script to rely on—and because making musicals is a lot harder than hammering out hagiography. Stage vet Lloyd works wonderfully with the actors, but her idea of ginning up dramatic interest with the camera is to start circling around and around Streep when something more direct would do.
The Iron Lady also isn’t as much fun as Mamma Mia, because there are no Abba songs in it.